Middlemarch: Progress report 3

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 28 to partway through chapter 35

Reading five pages of Middlemarch each morning, which I’ve now been doing it for two months, is a joy.

This month, as usual, it turned up in other reading. In Claire Potter’s book Acanthus there’s a short poem ‘Middlemarch in the Kitchen’. I don’t think the poem says anything about Middlemarch specifically – it just happens to be the book the poet is reading in the lighted kitchen: ‘instead of the grass and the trees, the objects I turn my back on are before me in the window’. But it’s a little sign that Middlemarch is everywhere. [Added on 16 March, just a little more than 2 months later: This morning, a passage in Chapter 61 of Middlemarch leapt out at me. The pious Mr Bulstrode’s past is catching up with him, so that ‘he felt the scenes of his earlier life coming between him and everything else, as obstinately as when we look through the window from a lighted room, the objects we turn our backs on are still before us, instead of the grass and the trees’.]

I have been away from home since the last week of December, and I didn’t bring my borrowed copy of Middlemarch away with me, as it would have risked damage to this beautiful object.

The parts I did read since my last progress report told mainly of the death of Peter Featherstone and the general disappointment generated by his will. In the younger generation, Lydgate has proposed to Rosamond, not without a degree of manipulation on her part; Fred has not benefited from his uncle’s death and so all hope of marriage to Mary seems lost; Dorothea is unhappily resigned to a life of misery with Mr Casaubon, but Will is back in town. Intrigue and hypocrisy continue to be the order of the day among their elders. George Eliot’s pleasure in her creations continues to shine in every sentence.

Here’s something from the last page I read before packing for Victoria. Mrs Bulstrode has raised the subject of her niece Rosamond’s betrothal to Lydgate – having a vague sense that this inappropriate match is partly due to her ostentatiously pious husband having given Lydgate a boost in the town’s social life:

‘I am sure we are bound to pray for that thoughtless girl – brought up as she has been,’ said Mrs Bulstrode, wishing to rouse her husband’s feelings.
‘Truly, my dear,’ said Mr Bulstrode, assentingly. ‘Those who are not of this world can do little else to arrest the errors of the obstinately worldly. That is what we must accustom ourselves to recognise with regard to your brother’s family. I could have wished that Mr Lydgate had not entered into such a union; but my relations with him are limited to that use of his gifts for God’s purposes which is taught us by the divine government under each dispensation.’
Mrs Bulstrode said no more, attributing some dissatisfaction which she felt to her own want of spirituality. She believed that her husband was one of those men whose memoirs should be written when they died.

(page 397)

‘Those who are not of this world,’ he says, meaning himself, who is of course one of the wealthiest men in town and much given to power games. And we know that ‘the use of his gifts for God’s purposes’ refers to Bulstrode’s having installed Lydgate as the only chaplain in the new hospital, thereby excluding any clergyman who might be critical of Bulstrode, The reader wants to give him a good shaking.

Maybe George Eliot’s irony is a little heavy, but I just love that ‘assentingly’: Bulstrode doesn’t have to disagree with his wife in order to reject outright her implied request for an intervention. Mrs Bulstrode’s backing off is one of GE’s myriad examples what we now call internalised sexism – but in case you’re inclined to think her belief, all evidence to the contrary, in her husband’s spiritual superiority is a mere comic invention, I remind you that just this morning former Australian Prime Minister was quoted as describing the recently deceased George Pell as ‘a saint of our time’.

4 responses to “Middlemarch: Progress report 3

  1. You have made me want to re-read this book, which is now staring provocatively at me from my shelf. Your last line is inspired. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my, I cannot read that passage without chortling.
    What an astute observer Eliot was!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely contemporary reference, Jonathan.

    Are you reading that edition you picture? If so, I’m impressed. they are lovely to hold but their print Is so small. (I’ve not read your earlier posts because, time!)

    When you say “I don’t think the poem says anything about Middlemarch specifically – it just happens to be the book the poet is reading”, I want to ask whether Middlemarch says anything
    about the poem. Do Middlemarch’s themes have anything to say about the poem’s ideas?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Sue. Yes, that’s the edition I’m reading, and though the print is very small, as opposed to the edition I started on it’s large enough that, in strong enough light, I can read it!

    That’s a good question about the poem. I’ve just reread it and pondered it: she is in her kitchen as night falls and sees in the window, not grass and trees, but a reflection of the things behind her back; then she sees herself transformed to a moth (cf the poem I blogged about where she becomes a bee) across her beloved’s thigh. In very general terms, maybe, Middlemarch also has at its centre a woman struggling for a wider vision of the world … and circling a man moth-like … ?


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